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'L.A. Confidential': Heroes in Hell

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 19, 1997

  Movie Critic

L.A. Confidential
Guy Pearce fights crime and dishonest police officers in "L.A. Confidential." (Warner Bros.)

Curtis Hanson
Kevin Spacey;
Danny DeVito;
Kim Basinger;
Russell Crowe;
Guy Pearce;
James Cromwell;
David Strathairn
Running Time:
2 hours, 18 minutes
For extreme violence and sexual imagery
Supporting Actress (Kim Basinger); Adapted Screenplay
"L.A. Confidential" has the lowdown, the true gen, the inside skinny all right, but not merely behind the news; it knows what goes on deep in the heart and the reptile part of the brain as well. It's a look at L.A. in the '50s, before Disneyland but after the Fall of Man, and it sees a city so seething with corruption and squalor one wonders why the God who fried Sodom hasn't issued a cosmic eviction notice for this blighted burg as well.

"Down these mean streets," another surveyor of this moral miasma once wrote, "a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." Well, that was L.A. in the '40s, the author was Raymond Chandler and one man was enough, especially if his name was Philip Marlowe. In James Ellroy's L.A. of the '50s, as Curtis Hanson's brilliant adaptation of Ellroy's best novel has it, it takes three men to work the mean streets, all cops, and ironically one is mean, one is tarnished and one is afraid.

Bud White (the Aussie Russell Crowe) is the mean one, tough and fearless, formed by pain. His sense of life is pain: He can dish it out and if need be take it. He likes to break things and men, and when New York thugs come west to sniff around the paradise left unguarded by Mickey Cohen's incarceration, they get a meat sandwich courtesy of Bud's fists and are sent home with smashed mouths and broken jaws. But maybe under his beef, his scarred knuckles and the well-worn Colt Detective Special he carries, he has a brain, a heart and a primitive sense of justice.

Ed Exley (another Aussie, Guy Pearce), by contrast, is afraid, at least in the beginning, when his lack of force, his nervousness, prevent him from stopping a police riot. Lacking strength, he is a creature of intellect: Bespectacled and quick of wit, he looks more like a grad student than a cop and his greatest strengths are investigation and interrogation. He sniffs weakness and inconsistency. He tracks men best not on the streets but through files and documents. He's a reader, a thinker and aggressively ambitious. He also has well-oiled political instincts and knows which butts to kiss, which backs to stab.

And finally there's Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey, the only Yank in the cast), as tarnished as an old urn. He stands for corrupt charm. He has the social ease indicative of a narcissistic personality disorder, the ability to mingle, cajole and schmooze. He's oleaginous and smooth, a dapper boulevardier of a cop who supports himself in style -- he has great clothes -- by doing favors for a sleazy tabloid reporter, wrecking this or that career for the sake of a buck. But possibly he, too, has the potential for redemption.

In fact redemption is the central theme of "L.A. Confidential," for each of the main characters will perform a beastly act and each will face his own evil and recoil from it and try to atone, thereby becoming heroic. In a city named for its angels, they and they alone seem to believe in Heaven and hope for a ticket to it.

One thing they know from the get-go: They are not there yet and that's because of where they are. What the film gets best of all is the sense of L.A. as a paradise lost, a land of milk, honey and sex turned rancid in the sun, as the harshly held Puritan disciplines of the East yield to the temptations of the city's nighttime fragrances.

What galvanizes the three not-yet-heroes is the infamous Nite Owl massacre. Six people in an all-night eatery, three killers, three shotguns: The result is Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" with blood spatters by Jackson Pollock on an amphetamine high. When quick detective work suggests three black men might be the culprits, L.A.'s finest act with the brutal decisiveness that would make them so famous many years later when the quarry was Rodney King. It falls to Bud and Ed to arrest them and to Ed to break them in interrogation rooms; when they escape -- hmmm, wasn't that a bit easy? -- it's Ed who tracks them down and deals with them.

That's exactly what the city loves the cops for. They are heroes. The important captain Dudley Smith (Aussie No. 3 James Cromwell) approves, and with his approval the brass happily get into the reception line. But even ambitious Ed, whose career has been made by the episode, begins to suspect that maybe what happened was a little too pat. Bud, who hates Ed for his rectitude, begins to look into the same case, even while he's falling in love with a prostitute (Kim Basinger) who looks a little too much like Veronica Lake. At the same time, the charming Jack has begun to tumble to an odd little racket going on behind the curtains of the stylish mansions of the Hills: Someone's running a vice network so pricey that it can afford to use hookers who've been surgically altered to look like movie stars. Gradually, as each cop begins to pick at his own private loose ends, a deeper, darker picture emerges.

The plot's not a conspiracy theory but a conspiracy actuality. Everything is a front concealing a cynical ruse where smart, vicious sociopaths are running a mean-spirited, lethal scam, taking over L.A. from the inside. In truth, there's probably too much plot, and even then it's been simplified from Ellroy's original, a text so thick with confusion that you needed to carry a compass to find the next page. But the screenplay, which Hanson wrote with Brian Helgeland, cross-pollinates clues and we watch as the wrong cop learns the right thing and we know, before the three cops do, that if they actually could put their spite aside, they could figure it out.

The movie may actually make sense if you take careful notes and hire three graduate students to diagram it in cyberspace, but more to the point, it feels coherent and pleasing as it builds to a big moment when the master player is revealed and ultimately a form of justice achieved. And getting there is the fun.

Hanson delivers something ever rarer in film culture, not a new film noir but an old-fashioned total movie, somehow of a single piece. Nearly everything works, with the possible exception of Danny DeVito, vainly clinging to his star persona and unwilling to be truly loathsome as a publisher of a sleazy proto-tabloid. But the actors are fine, particularly Crowe's doughy, stolid, brave Bud Smith, the cinematography (by Dante Spinotti) appropriately lurid with the colors of the night, and the action sequences well-designed and compelling. I particularly like the climactic gunfight, in which heroes cower in a San Berdoo motel while bad guys shred the walls with machine-gun fire, suggesting the complete fragility of the universe and the strength it takes to stand against such reality.

"L.A. Confidential" isn't a great film, but it plays one in the movies.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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